In this installment of ASCB’s How Cell Biologists Work, we feature the pioneering scientist Crystal Rogers. Rogers is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy, Physiology, and Cell Biology at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. The Rogers lab focuses on developmental biology and particularly on researching the development and formation of neural crest cells across multiple research organisms, including chickens, quail, and axolotls. The most recent publication from the Rogers lab explores the impact of Cadherin-11 on neural crest cell specification and survival. Rogers has also made deeply impactful contributions to the scientific community by investing in mentoring programs for undergraduate researchers and has been featured in the 1000 Inspiring Black Scientists piece from Cell Mentor. Rogers’ contributions to science and scientific culture are substantial and awe-inspiring. To learn more about this incredible scientist, read on!
Let’s start with your Name: Crystal Rogers
Location: University of California, Davis
Position(s): Assistant Professor
What kind of research do you do? The work in my lab centers around understanding processes of developmental biology (#DevBio). Our projects focus on defining the molecular mechanisms that control the early patterning and tissue formation in vertebrate embryos. Specifically, we are interested in identifying the molecules that control the formation, migration, and differentiation of an embryonic stem cell-like population called neural crest cells. These cells contribute to more than 30 different adult tissue derivatives, including the craniofacial bone and cartilage, the peripheral and enteric nervous systems, and pigment cells. Further, we use multiple research organisms because we also want to know if these processes are conserved between species.
What is one word that best describes how you work? Persistence.
What excites you most about your current work? The work we are currently doing in the lab focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms that drive development in multiple vertebrate species. We are really interested in understanding how different organisms use similar programs to create such different phenotypes. Since we focus on neural crest cell development, this allows us to ask questions like, “why do birds look so different if they have the same cells that make their beaks?” and “if these same processes are conserved, why is an axolotl face so round and squishy while birds have pointy and hard faces?”
Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path? Luck and opportunity. I am a first-generation (#FirstGen) college student, and I honestly had no idea what I was doing while applying to graduate school. I was lucky to receive an opportunity to interview at Georgetown University, and also lucky that Elena Silva was there at the time because she fought for me to have the opportunity. When I rotated in her lab and watched Xenopus laevis embryos developing from single cells to complex organisms in real time, I was hooked. It was going to be #DevBio or bust for me. I fell in love.
What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?
Time management and constant rejection. I find that even with the amount of effort I put in, it is always challenging to face rejection or receive a “no” after submitting papers or grants to the scientific community. My passion for the science and long working hours do not always translate to success with regards to the traditionally accepted achievements. However, these moments are always countered by positive ones like student success, and those positives keep me going through the difficult times.
Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty? Always ask questions! Why must we reinvent the wheel over and over again? I think that making sure to clarify what the objectives are, what the metrics are, and what the expectations are for any project in which we participate is crucial. Researchers who are willing to do service or fight for justice will always be sought after by others in academia, but knowing whether your efforts will actually lead to change in the system will help you choose where you place your efforts more wisely.
What (if any) are your preferred methods for training your students to become independent scientists? I feel that I am an evolving mentor. When trainees need me more, I am happy to “helicopter” mentor, guiding them along the way as needed, but as they become more proficient, I give them space to drive their own careers and efforts. Without guidance, it is difficult to become confident in one’s independence, but without freedom, it is impossible to develop the skills to be independent. All mentors are different, and my style is one of flexibility and availability.
What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack? If only I knew how to save time… Stay off Twitter when you have a deadline, I guess?
In your opinion, what makes a successful scientist? Passion for science, curiosity for discovery, and resilience to get through setbacks and rejections.
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without (this can include any gadget that’s not a phone or computer)? Apps: Twitter, Safari, Software: Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, Tools: Forceps and a sharp pair of dissection scissors.
When/ where do you find the most creative inspiration for your research? Two places: 1) Chonk the axolotl and her siblings are inspirational to me and many others on Twitter. These animals are amazing research organisms, but since our lab has been relatively quiet during the pandemic, they have really provided me with an outlet for fun social media posts. They also provide me with a sense of calm. 2) #SciArt. There is nothing more beautiful to me than developmental biology. I am enamored with the images we take of ever-changing developmental systems. I have had more chances to share our SciArt since upping my Twitter game and shared quite a few images to the @BlackInCMDBio and @BlackInMicroscopy weeks on Twitter.
What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are? Give my son “squishes” (hugs and kisses), share honest and hopefully inspirational messages on social media, and make time for my students to help them get where they need and want to be.
Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person? Marianne Bronner, my postdoctoral mentor. She has created a scientific empire and has mentored more than 30 people who are now faculty across the world. Even with all of her scientific acclaim and achievements, she remains compassionate, patient, and supportive with her mentees and she promotes kindness and “having a life” outside of the lab in a way that I hope to emulate. Many of her progeny use the phrase, “what would Marianne do?” when we are faced with challenges as faculty.
What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab? My outside interests outside of spending time with my family are a combination of watching horror movies, reading biographies of people who have faced severe adversity and have persevered, and reading celebrity gossip.
Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about? I am passionate about the fight for increased inclusion and equity within science as well as increasing access to science for everyone. Academia is built for people who come from privilege as it is really difficult to “get here,” unless you have prior knowledge of the system and outside financial support. I am passionate about helping to create a scientific community with more diverse life experiences and thought.
How do you balance your personal life with your work life? Not well. I still have not figured out a way to get everything done, be successful, and also take time out for myself and my family. However, I promote and support the concept of work-life balance for the people in my lab, and I hope they will develop more efficient tendencies than me.
What is the best advice you’ve received that you’d like to share with trainees? I am of the “do as I say and not as I do” motto. I want my trainees to understand that they should work hard to enjoy their lives while doing science. It is important to be passionate about what you are doing, and to be in academia you must work hard. However, it is also important to foster connections with friends, family, and colleagues outside of the system. It will help with mental and physical wellness. This path is a marathon and not a sprint.
About the Author:
Vaishnavi Siripurapu is an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is majoring in Biology and Women's Studies. Twitter: @VaishSiri Email: email@example.com
Emily Bowie is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the lab of Bob Goldstein at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is interested in morphogenesis and embryology. Twitter: @docbowie Email: firstname.lastname@example.org